The hostage crisis scared away all but the most determined divers, and who could blame them? But now it's time to reconsider. Security is no longer a reason to stay away: in today's Sipadan, Malaysian soldiers frequently outnumber paying guests. Military planes perform daily flybys and coast guard and police vessels patrol the waters. "Since the incident, this is probably the safest dive spot in the entire world," says Ron Holland, British co-founder of Borneo Divers, the company that originally transformed Sipadan from an obscure fishing ground into a globally renowned dive destination.
Fortunately, the military buildup hasn't robbed the island of its languid charm. You won't spot the soldiers unless you doff your mask and fins and go looking for them. During a 20-minute walk around the island, I came upon two unarmed sentries, wearing sarongs and "Save the Turtle" T shirts but carrying walkie-talkies, posted where the jungle meets the sea on Sipadan's wild, un-developed south side.
While the soldiers are discreet, the turtles—the island's most notable inhabitants—can hardly be avoided. Each morning Sipadan's beaches are crisscrossed with the tracks of female turtles, who have come ashore under the cover of darkness to lay their eggs. The only person allowed to roam the beaches at night is the resident wildlife specialist, known as—what else?—the "Turtle Man." He transfers the eggs (as many as 100 per female) to a hatchery, where they incubate beyond the reach of the island's equally protected and much more ravenous eagles.
Divers can attest to the Turtle Man's success: two species of giant turtles lounge on every ledge of the steep-walled reef, and are not shy about swimming, eating or mating in full view. With many divers staying away, the reefs are more peaceful now than they have been since the first wave of visitors arrived in 1988, inspired by a TV documentary by French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau that showed labyrinth-like caverns and teeming schools of fish. By the mid-1990s the neoprene hordes were scaring away the fish and endangering the reef. "You would see 26 boats anchored side-by-side off Barracuda Point," says Holland, referring to Sipadan's most popular dive area.
A territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia prevented either country from transforming the island into a national park or wildlife refuge. In 1999 the Malaysian government imposed limits on the number of guests allowed to stay on the island or enter its waters each day. But before they could be effectively enforced, the Abu Sayaff brigands struck. The absence of visitors since then has helped restore the ecological balance, endowing Sipadan with a tranquillity it has not known for more than a decade. While this has been bad for resort owners, it has been good for the reef and for divers willing to risk the trip.
Ironically, the government of Malaysia may turn out to be the biggest beneficiary of the hostage crisis. After refraining for years from stationing anything more provocative than border police on Sipadan, it responded to the Abu Sayaff outrage by sending in federal troops. To nearly everyone's surprise, the newly democratic government of Indonesia—in contrast to past regimes which had relentlessly pushed Jakarta's territorial claim—raised no public objection to Kuala Lumpur's overt intervention. This has led to speculation that Indonesia is prepared to concede the case—an outcome that might allow both divers and fish to breathe a little easier.